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Riversimple Fuel Cell: Unto the Lease of Them

In a growing sea of new car companies looking for their niche in a wide-open market, Riversimple might be a legitimate stand-out thanks to stylish design, an advanced lease, open-source development, and plenty of industry muscle.
riversimple fuel cell car
photo courtesy of Riversimple

Specs:

  • Type: Hydrogen fuel cell urban vehicle
  • Class: 2-seat hatchback
  • Manufacturer: Riversimple
  • Propulsion system: 6 kW hydrogen fuel cell which powers an electric motor and a set of supercapacitors
  • Top Speed: 50 mph (80 km/h)
  • Zero-to-30: 5.5 seconds
  • Vehicle range: 200 miles (320 km)
  • Fuel(s): Hydrogen
  • Fuel efficiency: 300 MPGe
  • Tailpipe emissions: No
  • Price: £200 monthly lease only
  • Availability: 2012

The manufacturer says

"Our vision is of a world where our relationship with the car has changed dramatically for the better, with new solutions in place for sustainable and responsible mobility."

Overview

riversimple interior

In a growing sea of new car companies looking for their niche in a seemingly wide-open market, Riversimple might actually be one of the few legitimate stand-outs, thanks to an attractive and stylish design, a highly advanced leasing program, open-source development, a dirt-cheap propulsion system, and plenty of industry muscle in the background.

Riversimple's leadership team begins with Hugo Spowers, an Oxford-educated engineer, entrepreneur, and racecar driver. Can't say why, but Spowers reminds me of a disheveled, East End version of David Dickinson.

The leadership team is bolstered by the presence of venture capitalist Sebastian Piëch, a man with significant experience in the automotive industry, and not just because his cousin is former Volkswagen Group CEO Ferdinand Piëch, or because legendary auto pioneer Ferdinand Porsche was their Groβvater. In fact it's widely reported that Piëch and other family members are providing funding for the Riversimple project.

What we like

under the hood of the riversimple

The fuel cell. By using a puny 6 kW fuel cell and by going into a cooperative agreement with a British liquid-hydrogen supplier to help get past that biggest sticking point in the argument over hydrogen—the lacking infrastructure—might Riversimple have the ultimate comeback to hydrogen's many naysayers?

The vehicle weight. Riversimple's carbon fiber body has a curb weight of a meager 350 kg (770 lbs). This attribute is crucial to the vehicle's efficiency, so it's a good spot to keep an eye on as the car develops.

The leasing concept. Riversimple won't be selling the car, they will only be leasing it, likely made available in packaged options the way we do cell phones. The idea is to "establish a business model that rewards longevity and low running costs rather than obsolescence and high running costs." Curiously, hydrogen is included in that monthly lease fee (early figures suggest £200/month). In this clip, Spowers explains why they'll pay your gas bill, calling it "a financial driver to constantly improve the energy consumption of the vehicle throughout its life."

What we don’t

morgan lifecar
LIFECar prototype, Geneva '08,
courtesy of Morgan Motor

The past. Riversimple isn't the first hydrogen-based vehicle in Hugo Spowers' past, at least in concept. He was also behind the supremely seductive Morgan LIFECar, a vehicle in which old-time elegance met future brilliance. Yet the LIFECar also rightly belongs on any credible compilation of Vehicle Vaporware's all-time greatest hits.

The name-dropping. The Riversimple website drops names like Christian Bale drops F-bombs, including Buckminster Fuller, Teddy Roosevelt, Antoine de St. Exupery and Jules Verne. However, none of the names have quite the impact of one name that Spowers drops as one of his 'inspirations': Former MacArthur Fellow Amory Lovins—a more unimpeachable name in the field of energy efficiency, you could not find. Icon and iconoclast, currently Lovins is Chairman and Chief Scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), and is widely regarded as a genius with a tremendous amount of power in the auto industry.

Conclusions

If Riversimple goes down in flames, it won't be for a lack of money or ingenuity. But to me, at this early stage, Riversimple is a Rube Goldberg Machine: They hype their simplicity (it's part of the name for that very reason), but it all seems to be supported by a stream of minor complexities uncovered when you probe the details, or lack thereof. What if the hydrogen partnership falls through. What if the lease options really do behave like cell phone plans. What if 'Open Source' backfires into costly litigation. What if paying the gas bill becomes inconvenient, or unprofitable.

Granted changing any one of the details may not mean its immediate undoing, but right now they seem especially—dangerously, precariously—contingent upon one another.

Video

 
 

Dive Deeper

Self-published article from 2003 by Hugo Spowers on his "OSCar [Open Source Car] Project"

Short profile of Amory Lovins at The New Yorker

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